Last year I mentioned Greg Ross’s excellent miscellany-blog Futility Closet; now John Cowan points me to a recent post called “Calendar Trouble,” presenting five pairs of mismatched Slavic month names, the first two being:

In Macedonian, Listopad means October.
In Polish and Slovenian, Listopad means November.
In Czech, Srpen means August.
In Croatian, Srpanj means July.

Anybody know anything about the history of these names?
Addendum. Thanks to Laura Gibbs in the comment thread, here‘s a nice comparison chart (annoying horizontal scrolling; explanatory text in French).


  1. Don’t know much about Macedonian or Slovenian, but “Listopad” quite evidently speaks of the “falling of the leaves”.
    “Serpen” in the late summer (August in Ukrainian as well as Czech) suggests that it is the “month of the sickle”.

  2. You may be interested in the article atСерпень . I quote it here in (more or less) its entirety:
    Серпень – від слова серп. Це знаряддя, яким жали зернові. Інші назви, що існували в народі, також про жнива свідчили: копень, густар, хлібочол, жнивець, зоряничник, городник, прибериха-припасиха, спасівець, барильник.
    Serpen’ – from the word “serp” [sickle]. This is an instrument used to harvest grains. Other names from the folk tradition also indicate the harvest: “kopen’, hustar, khlibochol, zhnyvets’, zoryanychnyk, horodnyk, pryberykha-prypaskha, spasivets, baryl’nyk.

  3. Wikipedia’s Czech months pages explains all but one of the pairs and that one (Lipiec / Lipanj) is covered by either Polish or Croatian.

  4. D. Wilson says:

    Here is a discussion from (I think) 1908:
    (Hastings, Encyclopedia …, part 5)
    … beginning at sec. 2 on p. 137.
    There is a lot of variation.

  5. Miklosich’s work to which Hastings refers is here.

  6. So:
    1) The names are inherited, meaningful, and relate to seasonal features.
    2) When the various nations adopted the Roman calendar, they attached their existing names to various months.
    3) There was no consistency from one region to another. Listopad is October in the south and November in the north not because the leaves fall sooner in the south, but because of more or less random semantic narrowing.

  7. The history of Slavic month names is very interesting. There are many theories on the pre-Christian Slavic calendar, but in the absence of written records, we can never know for certain. There are many common names, and the two you mentioned are relatively common in the Slavic speaking world. Srpanj (Croatian) refers to the harvest time when you use sickles (Srp) and Listopad is a common name meaning “leaf-fall”.
    Another common one is Travanj (trava = grass), a spring month, referring to April in Croatian and May in Ukrainian and other northern regions.
    It is interesting to note that although the names are not standardised (refer to “travanj” which is variously April or May) they have a definite order. So, the greass month (travanj) will always occur before the linden month (lipanj) for example.
    All Slavic nations except for the Russians use these month names. According to Miklosich, even the Old Russians did so, but at some point I imagine the Church or the State banned their use in Russia. In some regions, the Slavic names are preferred (Poland, Upper and Lower Sorbs, Silesians, Czech Rep, Croatia, Belarus, Ukraine) but in others, the Roman names are preferred (Slovakia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia, Bulgaria). In Slovenia, one will often find the Slavic and the Roman side by side in calendars. In Macedonia and Bulgaria, the Orthodox Church appears to use the Slavic names in their calendars, just like the Romanian Orthodox Church which uses the folk names in its calendars.
    Hope that helps

  8. “Listopad” quite evidently speaks of the “falling of the leaves”. “Serpen” in the late summer (August in Ukrainian as well as Czech) suggests that it is the “month of the sickle”.
    Sorry, I should have made it clear I was wondering about the discrepancies in the months referred to, not the etymologies (which are perfectly transparent if you know any Slavic languages).
    It is interesting to note that although the names are not standardised (refer to “travanj” which is variously April or May) they have a definite order. So, the greass month (travanj) will always occur before the linden month (lipanj) for example.
    That is indeed interesting, as is your entire comment—thanks, zyxt!

  9. On-topic by the thinnest of threads, if at all:
    Ivo Banac translates a Bosnian Nasreddin tale whose punchline is razumjeli se ko Francuz i Nasrudin ‘they understood each other like the Frenchman and Nasruddin’. (The book that it’s actually translated from is mis-OCR’ed by Google with the Cyrillic setting even though it’s in the Roman alphabet. Oops.) The whole tale (apparently copied word-for-word) is online in several places, like here.
    Does this tale — or better yet the proverb, which seems useful — still occur in Bosnian and does / did it also exist somewhere else, like Turkish or Persian? (As çılbır for omak, I think, would seem to imply, though I’m unclear about cheese vs. yogurt.) I know there’s no shortage and lots of slight variation, but I have not run across this one before.

  10. That’s an Islamified version of an old Jewish joke.

  11. Well, yeah, within the category of disputes in sign language with associated misunderstanding, there’s Thaumaste and the Panurge. (French; English with Heath Robinson’s illustrations.)

  12. A different version appears in Folktales of Iraq (XVIII p. 89); uncharacteristically, Dover doesn’t let you get more than snippets in GB. A big difference here is that the fool understands the subtle meaning properly, through divine influence.
    I guess a more systematic search is called for, particularly for where it’s turned into a proverb (if anywhere, admitting that it might just be a narrative flourish).

  13. John Emerson says:

    In one of Gombrowicz’s novels (Ferdydurke or Pornographia) there’s a debate conducted in grimaces. I start thinking of this debate and the Panurge / Thaumaste debate whenever an intellectual debate starts to get lost in the weeds — notably, the Benjamin-Schmitt-Strauss argument about liberalism, violence, and the the state of exception.)

  14. There is a fabulous table here with the months in many Slavic languages (including lesser known languages, such as upper and lower Sorbian, etc.) that uses color-coding to show the slippage and crossovers in the month names:
    It also includes Baltic names, and there is some overlap there, too.
    I studied both Polish and Russian in college, and was delighted by the Slavic names still used in Polish for the months. The Russian month names were so much less interesting by comparison. :-)

  15. Okay. In terms of the overall framework, the relevant Aarne-Thompson tale type numbers are 924A “Discussion between Priest and Jew Carried on by Symbols” and 924B “Sign Language Misunderstood.”
    The first can be seen in the Rosenblüt farce disputatz eins freiheits mit eim Juden, discussed by Köhler here. The second covers Rabelais.
    An Arabic version is discussed (with additional references) here. There are Japanese and Korean versions: see here (notes). A good summary article seems to be this in JSTOR, also available here, but with poor OCR’ing in some places.
    The oldest written version is from Accursius‘s Gloss to the Justinian Code (c. 1260), where it is between a Roman and a Greek. Both De Looze’s article and Koelher give the Latin text (and translation), but the page layout is much cooler in a 17th century edition in Gallica. (This paper says there was an ancient version in Greek between an Athenian and a Spartan, but I haven’t found another reference to that and it may be a misunderstanding of Accursius.)

  16. It’s hard to present those month correspondences effectively; the Cambridge green book in particular seems to struggle with it.

  17. Well, I’ll be damned. The things you learn! I could have gone all my life thinking this was of Jewish origin. From MMcM’s “here, but with poor OCR’ing” link (I have made minor emendations):

    As interesting as Rabelais’s version is, however, it is atypical of the general tradition, for by far the most common European version involves a debate between a Greek and a Roman. Introduced by the early-thirteenth-century Bolognese jurist Accursius (1182-1256?) in his gloss on Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis, this Greek and Roman variant quickly spread across Europe. In the thirteenth century it is retold in the Old French Placides et Timéo ou li secrés as philosophes; in the fourteenth century, Juan Ruiz rehearses it in his Spanish masterpiece, the Libro de buen amor; and in the fifteenth century it shows up in Icelandic literature (“Af rómverska dáranum”). It is also fodder for edifying literature, as in Johannes Gritsch’s Quadragesimale or Bernardino de’ Bustis’s Rosarium [Sermonum].

    With slight variations, the tale goes as follows. In antiquity the barbarous Romans petitioned the Greeks for Greek law. The Greeks, however, proposed to test the Romans first, and to that end they sent a sage to debate with whomever the Romans chose from among their number. In order to facilitate communication, given that the two debaters spoke different languages, the Greeks proposed that the debate be conducted through gestures. Naturally, the Romans were reluctant, but in the end one Roman stepped (or was pushed) forward. In Accursius’s version the Romans deliberately choose an ignorant fellow to bear the shame of losing the debate; in Placides et Timéo he arises spontaneously out of the crowd; in Juan Ruiz’s version the Roman ribaldo who debates is the only one foolish enough to be willing. In any event, the debate goes as follows: the Greek holds up one finger, to which the Roman responds with two (in Accursius’s and the Old French versions) or three (in the Spanish and Icelandic versions). The Greek then holds out his flat hand, to which the Roman responds with a fist. At this point the Greek concedes and announces that the Romans should get Greek law.
    The joke resides in the explanation of the meaning of these signs. The Greek’s understanding of the exchange is generally as follows: his single finger referred to one God, while the Roman’s two or three fingers referred either to God as Father and Son, or to the Trinity. The Greek showed an open hand to illustrate that God had everything in his grasp, to which the Roman responded with his fist that God was all powerful. The Roman’s understanding is entirely different, however. In place of the Greek’s Christian code of interpretation, the Roman interprets according to a semiotics of violence and hostility. For him, therefore, the Greek’s index finger was a threat to put his eye out, to which he responded that he would put out both of the Greek’s eyes (and crush his nose as well, in the case of the third finger). The Greek then threatened to slap the Roman, to which the Roman responded that he would knock the Greek silly with his fist.

  18. There is a fabulous table here with the months in many Slavic languages
    Thanks very much—I’ll add it to the post.

  19. The older versions of the debate by signs, though, aren’t really jokes: they lack the anticlimax of “And then he pulled out his lunch, so I pulled out mine” (the version I learned from a Jewish friend long ago). At any rate, the humor is more abstract and intellectualized in the Greek/Roman version: I smile, but I don’t snicker, never mind guffaw.

  20. Yes, exactly. “And then he pulled out his lunch, so I pulled out mine” is the way I learned it too, and the way I google it. Let’s face it, there’s a reason Jewish humor is famous.

  21. I find the old month names charming. In Russian they either described the weather or the work done in that weather. Here’s a partial list that I came up with a while back:
    January: перезимье (mid-winter) or просинец (from синий – blue — when everything is colored with the bluish tint of rime)
    February: бокогрей (from греть — when things begin warming up) or сечня (from сечь – when the undergrowth is culled)
    March: протальник (from проталина, thawed patches of snow) or сухый (“dry”; according to one interpretation, when peasants check to see how the earth is drying out)
    April: снегогон (from гонять снег – when the snow is chased away), цветень (from цветить, to when plants begin to bloom), or березозол (from берёза – birch – and зола – ashes; when birch tree ashes are used to fertilize the land)
    May: травник or травень (from трава, when the grass appears)
    June: хлеборост (when the grain – хлеб – grows high), or изок (a term for grasshoppers or cicadas that begin their serenade)
    July: макушка лета (the “top of the head of the year”); косень (from косить, when some crops are cut); червень (“red” — when berries ripen); or липец (when the липа — linden tree – flowers)
    August: разосол (from солить, to salt, when vegetables are put up) or серпень (from серп, the sickle used to harvest)
    September: хмурень (from хмурый, downcast) or руин (windy)
    October — листопад (“when leaves fall”) or свадебник (“the time of weddings”)
    November: полузимник (middle of the winter months) or грудень (from груда — pile – when the frozen earth is “piled up”)
    December: студень (the time of cold)
    I think the Western names were introduced in the 12th century: януарий, фебуар, марот, априль, маи, иунь, иуль, аугуст, сентемврий, октемврий, новембар, декембар. But up to the 17th century, the old names were used along with the new ones in the Chronicles. And they weren’t standardized in current forms until later. I have a photo of a decree by Peter the Great in 1724 dated Генварь.
    It also seems that the first week had six days.

  22. Does anyone know what they call the October Revolution in Macedonian, Polish and Slovenian? Bearing in mind that that happened in November (according to the Gregorian calendar, not then in use in Russia) it allows for a whole new level of confusion.

  23. I would suspect that the discrepancies in the assigning of the old names to the new months could be explained if the old month names referred to lunar months. This would not be due, as John Cowan suggests, to random semantic narrowing, but to the best correspondence in the year the Roman calendar was adopted. If, for example, Listopad began in early to mid October in the year the Lord High Poobah decreed that they were switching to the Roman solar calendar, then it would likely be applied to October, but if it started in late October or early November it would be used for November.

  24. The native Americans had an extra thirteenth (lunar) month, but I’m not sure how it worked. IIRC they did have a “harvest month” or harvest full moon as well as a moon of geese flying.
    The old Norwegian calendar sticks (primstav) also had markings for various planting times which varied from valley to valley.
    One that has been the subject of a book also has five or six days missing compared to our 365 day calendar. Maybe coincidently they fall in December right after the Feast of John the Brewer at winter solstice.

  25. John Emerson says:

    13 28-day months with an extra day or two at the end works out almost as well as our 12-month system (364 +1 or 364 + 2). It’s not quite as neat as that because the month isn’t exactly 28 days, but the 12 month system is completely artificial and forced, with only one natural month.

  26. Faldone says:

    A strict lunar calendar follows the phases of the moon, with 29 or 30 day months and, usually, an intercalary month inserted to keep the months lined up with the year. The only exception I know of is the Muslim calendar, which plows ahead in its 12 lunar months with no attempt to keep it aligned with the solar year. This means that the months in a lunar calendar are going to be all over the place in their relation to the months of a solar calendar, hence the uncertainty in the naming of the months of the solar calendar with names from a lunar calendar. Look at new moon dates over the course of several years to see the amount of variance that one might expect. Or check the dates of a lunar calendar festival, e.g., Hanukkah, to see the same thing.

  27. I’m changing to John’s system. It sounds like more fun, with more pages in the calendar and salaried employees making more money. Probably someone had an aversion to thirteen. I’m going to switch over next year. What will we call the extra month? So many months have girls’ names; I vote for Gladys. It can be between May & June, an extra summer month.

  28. This article takes as its launching point the French Revolutionary Calendar (notice how typically that Wikipedia article says it is usually attributed to Romme and d’Egaltine‘s says that it is usually attributed to him though it is Romme’s) and covers the Anglo-Saxon, Old High German, Dutch, Danish, Slavic, Lithuanian and Finnish names.

  29. Too many businesses, at least in the U.S., deal heavily in quarter years to make a 13-month year practical. You want calendar reform, go with the World Calendar, but be prepared to deal with the Orthodox Jews and Seventh-Day Adventists, who aren’t gonna stand for eight days between Sabbaths, not even once a year.

  30. Would they stand for two lots of four?

  31. The need for reform is there. One thing that’s done in Europe and not the USA (I don’t know about elsewhere) is organizing work schedules by the week of the year. So, in construction, people talk about ‘pouring the floor slab in week 24′ and ‘taking their vacation in week 38′. It’s a useful system, but I never have a feeling for what the weather’s going to be like in ‘week 38′.

  32. Wiki: His surname was Fabre, the d’Églantine being added in commemoration of his receiving a silver dog rose (French: églantine)
    But dog rose isn’t eglantine (not in English, at any rate). Eglantine is sweet briar.

  33. J. W. Brewer says:

    Those who like the sort of things being discussed in this thread should get hold of a copy of the Oxford Companion to the Year, a wonderfully browsable reference work which has both lots of interesting trivia about naming conventions for days/months/years and also the sort of appendices that enable you to get as deep into the details of Easter-date-calculation controversies &c. as any sane person would wish to go.

  34. American retail business do do things by week number. Interesting conventions determine when a year has 53 of them. See Wikipedia on 4-4-5 and NRF on 4-5-4.
    I second the recommendation for The Oxford Companion to the Year: I have it right here, though I didn’t find anything there about Slavic naming when this topic first showed up.

  35. See Wikipedia on 4-4-5 and NRF on 4-5-4.
    I think it’s grossly unfair that MMcM knows everything about everything and I’m never going to.

  36. It is indeed unfair. His knowledge should be seized and distributed among the masses.

  37. No. It should be seized and given to me.

  38. John Emerson says:

    Crow should be seized and given to the crows.

  39. Yeah, you probably knew that too. Only in, like, Dari.

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